Does difficult writing have a purpose?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

It goes without saying that writing should be as clear and precise as possible. Sure, it's okay to add a rhetorical flourish or build up a scene with poetic imagery, but in the end the language shouldn't get in the way of understanding. But in The Atlantic, Edward Tenner asks if intentionally difficult writing (as opposed to flat out bad writing) has its place. Citing research that suggests that readers expect serious subject matter to be more difficult to read, Tenner makes that argument that difficult writing can provoke more radical thought:

Respect it or detest it, difficult writing is not just lazy thinking. It's often, as comments in Miller's essay show, a deliberate strategy. When I was in science publishing, another editor quoted one of his philosopher authors as striving for a purposely "knotty" style to provoke deeper thought from his readers. And there's another benefit of complexity. It's hard to refute someone whose meaning isn't completely clear; he or she can often find a way to say that a critic has missed the point. Not so with plain English. That doesn't mean, though, that anybody can put together a successful jargon-filled argument. It takes years of training and peer criticism to do it well enough to impress other users of the same lexicon.

I've worked in the corporate world for 10 years now and I've seen my fill of jargon-filled arguments, but I can't say it inspires more radical thought. Usually it inspires headaches and a strong desire to lay down. But if the English language is dying of laziness anyway, torturing it on purpose at least keeps it alive long enough to extract some dubious information.